How to avoid running an agency that employees think is crappy to work at

Navigating the fine line between an environment that is hectic but productive and one that is chaotic and toxic
Agency Leadership Podcast

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A recent post on Reddit featured an agency employee venting about his experience working at his firm. The individual wrote:

“I’m basically the whole editorial team (it’s a small agency) and the sole account manager now. I told the boss I didn’t think this was sustainable in the long run, I was just told to ‘stop being negative and get on with it, or leave.'”

Chip and Gini explore what it takes to avoid creating a culture that employees rebel against, as well as ensuring you have the right employees for that stage in your agency’s life.

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Transcript

The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

CHIP: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin,

GINI: and I’m Gini Dietrich.

CHIP: And we are here today to talk about really crappy agencies, places that nobody wants to work.

GINI: It’s very strange to see you while we’re talking. I might have turned my video off. Before we talk about crappy agencies, I don’t know if I can get over this.

CHIP: So for those of you who are listening, and audio, which is all of you, because we don’t produce an actual video of this, although maybe we should start producing a video of it so that folks can enjoy that but we are recording differently. This week. We are using Zoom so that we can see each other mostly because I got ticked off at our last provider who I will not name on the show because this is a positive show. Even though we’re talking about crappy agencies. This is our topic.

GINI: crappy agencies. All right, let’s see if I will focus. I can do this. I can. Okay,

CHIP: you can focus I can do it. Feel free to turn the video off I might have I know I’m quite distracting and that that the sunlight coming? Off the snowbank outside my window reflecting into the camera probably isn’t help. That’s not true, either. But in any case, so it’s not really crappy agencies that we’re talking about though today. It’s it’s the it’s the reality of life in certain agencies, particularly smaller ones. And so this is a post that comes from Reddit — Gini’s favorite, my favorite. Absolutely genius on Reddit all day every day. Not true. No, okay.

GINI: It scares me. It scares me.

CHIP: There are scary things in Reddit. But there’s also a decent agency forum that has occasionally brought up some topics that are worth talking about. And this week is one of those. And this is someone who’s working as a copywriter in a creative agency. And he or she writes that they don’t mind the long hours that difficult clients but budget issues mean that they’re doing the combined job of both an account manager and a copywriter for no extra pay. Even though it was framed by a manager as a promotion, you know, that these are not a Typical things that you hear as a complaint in agencies. And so I think it provides a couple of things that we can talk about here. You know, then part of it is what I alluded to earlier, you know, there is some degree of reality to small agency life and one of the responses in the comments, sort of addresses that, that through different stages of life for agencies as they grow, you know, these things tend to be more common, you know, but the other thing is as, as an owner and the leader, you know, how do you deal with this because you’re going to have team members who, who feel this way no matter how well you think you’ve done at balancing things out so

GINI: well, and I think we’re that it’s an over servicing conundrum to right when we’ve talked over servicing to death, but when you when you over serve as a client you have there’s still work to be done, but you don’t have the budget to hire a new a new employee. You know it because you’ve over service now you’re out of time. And so it’s just the snowball effects of everything. Everybody being overworked and underpaid and

CHIP: yeah, right. And then The reality is, you know, in a small agency folks are going to be wearing multiple hats, of course, from the owner in a large agency to large agency to but, you know, much more prevalent in the small agency where you’re, you’re, you can’t hire for, you know, two roles once you’re going to have to have people who, you know, who can be utility players and do a couple of different things. Although, you know, with the increasing use of freelancers and subcontractors, you know, that certainly has helped agencies, you know, do a better job of resourcing appropriately for projects, but there’s, there’s going to be some of that. But even with that, you know, there are smart ways to handle it as an agency leader, and you need to work with your team so that you’re understanding what their burdens are and how you can help facilitate them doing their job better.

GINI: Yeah. And it’s, I mean, it is a conundrum because I run my agency. I’m also the office manager and the receptionist And the janitor and like, I mean, you, those are things you have to do. And it kind of sucks. Like, I don’t like doing those things, I hate it. But my alternative is to hire people for those things, and I don’t have the budget for it. So I think when you go when you work for a small agency there, there’s there are a lot of pros. You know, you get flexibility you have you can see what you’re doing is affecting growth of the company. There’s a lot of good stuff about it, but went but there’s also, you know, you may work harder, but, you know, I mean, I say this about larger agencies to when I worked at fleshman. We had to build 37 and a half hours a week to clients. Then we had new business on top of it. And then we had our administrative stuff on top of that. So you know, we were easily working 80 hours a week easily, sometimes more. We never complained about it. That’s just how it was. Right. So there’s also the you have to do the grunt work before you can get out of not doing the

CHIP: work right. Yeah. There’s there’s certainly an element of that. But if you’ve got team members who are complaining that, you know that they are being asked to do too much that they’re, you know, being stretched too thin. Obviously, a good starting point is what we’ve talked about on this show before, which is time tracking, you understand what it is, what the reality is, because they may be right. Or it may be that they just, you know, need a little bit more education on, you know, what’s needed from an agency perspective and figure out how to mesh that with their own personal objectives. But if you if you don’t have the data to work off of your, you know, you’re just guessing. And that’s not a strong position to be, you

GINI: know, and I think having the data also allows you to decide if they’re being a wimp or not. Wow, we’re being harsh on employees. Sometimes you’re like, really, really, you go home at four o’clock every day, you take an hour lunch, you come in at nine like you’re not stretched that thin. So being able to take the emotion out and Jenny and presenting it from a data perspective. That helps.

CHIP: Yeah, it does. And I think you know, the other thing that this can help with and you know, the more data you have, the better you can figure out which clients that you want to be pursuing, what services you ought to be offering. And, you know, one of the things that if you’ve got a lot of employees who are multitasking, doing wildly different things, you have to ask yourself is the service mix that you’re providing the right one, right for the way you are researched? And so that may mean you need to change how you resource or it may mean, you need to change the services that you’re offering. But, you know, the that particular question, you know, brought to my mind that there may be a misalignment for that particular agency. And obviously, we have very few facts other than what was on Reddit, but there may be a misalignment between those two things. And if you if you don’t have those in alignment, it’s going to cause a lot of stress for the team.

GINI: Yeah, so when you think about it, you really need to think okay, and you have the data in front of you and people are being spread too thin. Where are we over servicing? What is our service Mix, what kind of talent do we have on the team? Where do we need to fit in, and, you know, start to bring all of that together and really plan it out. And, you know, this is a good time of year just to do those things, because we’re going to be starting fresh in a few weeks. And we really need to think about Okay, do we have the right people in the right seats on the bus? Do we have the right service mix? And are we over servicing or not? And if we are, how do we fix that?

CHIP: Right. And and in this particular case, the, you know, the boss sort of took, I think, probably your point of view, which is, stop being negative and get on with it or, you know, feel free to go find another job. And, and, and look, I mean, again, there is there is truth to that if this is not what that particular employee likes to do, they perhaps should be looking for something else. You know, it’s it. There’s, there’s no reason why people need to remain in a job that they don’t like. It’s not good for anybody. Fair. And so that’s that is a perfectly legitimate approach to it, you know, that said, You know, I think that trying to work with the boss and try to sort through, you know, really, you know, what are the issues here? You know, is it as the person goes on to say later in the post that they’re just not cut out for agency life, that that’s just not the kind of maybe work style they want? that’s entirely possible, right? There are, you know, if you look at the communications industry, there are people who, you know, clearly prefer the agency side or the client side, and there’s nothing wrong with either they are different environments. You know, there are different challenges, there are different obstacles, all that and so you need to figure out what’s right for you. But if you’re going to remain in the agency environment, then you need to really understand how agencies work and find a way to to work within that construct. Because as a junior employee is this individual is you’re not going to change the whole agency model yourself. Right.

GINI: And I think that’s really fair too, because agency life is multiple hats, multiple balls multitasking multiple clients like that’s just what the life is about, unless you work for a really large, I mean really large agency where each accounting or each client has a focused account team, you’re going to have multiple things that you have to handle. That’s just the nature of the beast.

CHIP: Well, and for some people, myself included, that’s, that’s what I like about

GINI: Yeah, I love it. Yeah,

CHIP: it you know, I would I think I would find myself, you know, rather bored on the client side and in a coffee shop, you know, where I was, you know, doing the exact same thing more all day, every day, all day, every day. And so, you know, the opportunity to work on different kinds of clients, different kinds of projects, that always appealed to me, particularly as I was coming up in the agency world because it allows you to gain a lot of experience very quickly, that you might not get in an in house role.

GINI: Yeah, yeah, you get experience with across multiple industries, you get experience across multiple services. You get to figure out what you love and what you don’t, you know, and and then you can start to carve a path for yourself. So I think as an agency leader, we have to say, we also have to be able to be comfortable saying that to a junior employee, you know, let’s look at all the good things about this. And, you know, this person said, it was positioned as it was framed by my manager as a promotion. Which, okay, but and maybe it was, but you know, look at it from the help them look at it from the perspective of, you’re going to learn this, this, this and this, and that’s going to help you on your career path in this way.

CHIP: Right. And the other thing is, is as an employee in a small agency, you need to look at it in terms of, you know, do I now have these extra responsibilities? And but, you know, maybe it’s because the agency is struggling financially, you know, maybe maybe we haven’t hit the revenue targets that we need to where we’ve lost a client. And so those are oftentimes where you’re asked to do more. And so you have to ask yourself, you know, am I willing to A little bit more and be stretched a little bit thin. But on the plus side, you know, I can continue with this agency, whereas, you know, if I go to my boss and say you’ve got to have two people for this, you may be out of a job altogether. Yeah. So, I mean, yeah, it’s hard. But you but you know, oftentimes when agencies do this, it’s either that they’re growing very quickly, and they just can’t staff fast enough, or they’re shrinking, and they’re trying to preserve jobs as best they can. So, you know, you need to be, you know, really thoughtful about that and understand, as best you can, why your agency is taking on that change.

GINI: Yeah, and I think that’s really hard, especially for junior employees to understand really difficult. That’s really yeah, I mean, it’s, they see revenue numbers, and they think that that’s how much the owner is putting in their pocket and you’re like, trust me, I wish I was making $2 million a year but that is not how it works. So there’s a lot to be said for transparency around budgeting and transparency around what the how the Nobody makes money. You know, when I started my agency, one of the the pieces of advice, I’ve since evolved from this, but one of the pieces of advice I got was show them, you know, $1 and, and split it into a pie of that dollar 10% goes here and 5% goes here like, and you know, and all of your payroll is like 45%. And you know, and then if there’s anything left, it gets reinvested in the business. So, you know, helping them understand it at that very basic level, I think helps to so that they don’t, they don’t think that, you know, you’re taking home $2 million a year, and they’re making $35,000 a year.

CHIP: Right now. I mean, I think that’s a very valuable exercise, not just for the employees, but also, frankly, for most of the agency owners. Because in the process of explaining it to your team, you’re probably doing more than most small agency owners are doing so really analyze their financials anyway. So, you know, it’s, you know, it’s sort of like the, you know, the old axiom that you know, that teaching someone something helps you learn the subject matter better. It’s going to be the same with sharing those five financials with your team, because you’ll really, you’ll dive into them and try to understand them better if you have to explain it.

GINI: That’s really, really fair point. Yep, I agree.

CHIP: You know, one of the other things that that I think we both have remarked on when we looked at this original thread was that one of the responses is, is particularly media, and we’ll include a link in the show notes, but I thought it did a very nice job of walking through how agencies evolve as they go from small to large, how employees fit into the picture and how the, you know, sort of how management views them and how much pressure they put on employees and, you know, sort of a, almost in a bell curve type fashion. And I think, you know, regardless of whether you agree with everything that that particular poster has, I think it’s it’s a good reminder that as agencies grow and evolve, the role of the team changes, the their individual roles within the agency will change the, you know, take on work, pass it on, you know, that all that will continue to happen. And frankly, the other thing that happens is, at some point someone may not no longer be a good fit for that team, right? If you’ve someone may be an excellent participant in a small agency, but then when it gets to that, you know, mid size, you know, maybe that utility player isn’t as valuable and they need more specialists and, you know, so all of these things will continue to evolve throughout the lifecycle of the agency and employees, you know, need to evolve with it or look for other opportunities.

GINI: Yeah, and I mean, to your point, I thought the this person this is the other thing I hate about Reddit is you don’t know these people are it’s anonymous drives me crazy.

CHIP: But it doesn’t it doesn’t have to be anonymous. I mean,

GINI: do you say your name?

CHIP: I post under my name? I post on Reddit? I do I do with my nice little cartoon image? Oh,

CHIP: Yeah. So yeah, I’m real Chip Griffin on Reddit for anybody who would like real, real Joker because Chip Griffin was taken, probably because I registered it many years ago and I just, you know, no longer can remember how to access it. So anyway, as usual, if you see me as real Chip Griffin on some network is probably because I couldn’t figure out how to log into my original one because I tried to set up Chip Griffin on most of the services as soon as they come out just in case. I mean, I’ve got Chip Griffin, I think I’m like tik tok, or so that’s awesome. I’ve never actually used Tick tock tick

GINI: tock, by the way, total side note is super fun. It’s very fun. I hate to admit it, but it’s very fun.

CHIP: Yeah, I looked over my son shoulder when he was flipping through it the other day, just sort of get a feel for it. And I’m like, wow, this is kind of nuts. It I mean, it’s kind of it can suck you in. Oh, yeah. Yeah, but yeah, anyway, yeah, it’s back on track, though. Judge back

GINI: on try. sighs I love my side note. Sorry. Um, yeah. So anyway, I thought that this person, you know, had some really good insight and that is, I mean, I boil down five paragraphs into into one sentence, but essentially what this person said was, your product is your time and for a company to make the most money, they have to squeeze the most hours out of our person. So it doesn’t matter if they’re small, if they’re large, if they’re medium, whatever it happens to be, we can’t add more time to people, the only way that we can scale is to add more people and people are expensive. So the way that an agency is going to maximize profits is to squeeze as many hours out of you as they can.

CHIP: Right. And, and it’s, you know, it’s a capacity game, you know, if you’ve got spare time, they need to find a way to fill it. If you’re a copywriter, and there’s not enough copywriting to do, they’re going to have to find something else to fill your time. Otherwise, they’re going to literally walk by your cube or or look at your email on slack or whatever and say, why am I paying this person? Now? Absolutely. They’re not doing anything. Yes. And so, you know, it’s it’s essential for agencies to grow to have some degree of excess capacity. But if you have too much, then you start running into serious financial issues, because you, in all likelihood are not able to charge your client Enough to make up for that unused capacity.

GINI: That is absolutely true. So there are pros and cons to working in an agency, there are pros and cons to leading an agency, just like anywhere else. And as an employee, they are the ones who need to decide if this is the life for them or not.

CHIP: Right. I think that, you know, the only other thing I would add here is that, as an agency owner, as an agency leader, you need to make sure that you’re sending the right message to folks who are in situations like this. And so part of that is that they see that you’re willing to do whatever it takes Oh, yeah, absolutely. Oh, you know, if you’re, you know, if you’re in a small agency, a small shop, you’re the owner, and you sort of have that imperious way about you and you’re not doing that, you know, that’s going to send the wrong message. Absolutely. asking your team to make sacrifices. So, you know, obviously you need to make sure that you’re making highest best use of your time. I’m not saying that, as the owner, you should be in there. You know, doing all of the grunt work, but you need to be clear that you know, you will do what it takes in order to get the job done and make the agency successful. And that’s why you’re asking them to do the same.

GINI: Yeah, totally agree. Totally, totally, totally agree. And lead by example.

CHIP: With that, I think we’ve done everything we can to make this episode of the agency leadership podcast successful. Oh, I forgot I was It’s been a while since we were supposed to segue I was supposed to force you to segue to the end since you since you always mock I guess it’s too late for that.

GINI: It’s too late. Oh, and Angie segwayed. Well, so there you go. Wow. Wow, there was no there was no dad joke in there at all.

CHIP: Yeah, I guess that’s, I’m gonna chalk this up to the video. You can’t look me in the eye and block me quite as well. I can.

GINI: It’s probably easier.

CHIP: On that note before this really degenerate. We will call this to an end. I am Chip Griffin.

GINI: And I’m Gini Dietrich

CHIP: and it depends

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